Urban Jungle Warfare in South-East Asia: Fighting Back with Energy Efficiency

27 Jan 2020

Photo Credit: wong yu liang/Shutterstock.com

As the world’s sixth largest economic market, the ASEAN bloc has significant potential to drive growth. By 2030, the bloc aims to become the fourth-largest economy, and with the world’s third-largest labour force, opportunities for innovation and higher prosperity are emerging. There are, however, still many economic and social hurdles to overcome to ensure that economic growth is inclusive and sustainable across the subregion. Sustainable development strategies will need environmental considerations and policy options to promote resource efficiency. This is because detrimental impacts of anthropogenic activities and ever-increasing consumption and production will further contribute to worsening climate change and resource depletion, reversing gains to the region’s economies and societies.

According to scientists, 2019 was recorded as the world’s second warmest average temperature, accompanied by the hottest ocean heat content (OHC) in history. Throughout Asia, the impacts of climate change are seen in intense heat waves, increased energy demand for cooling and adverse effects to water supply, food security and ecological sustainability. Rising temperatures in South-East Asia have been observed since the 1960s, with a rate of 0.14˚C to 0.20˚C per decade, accompanied by increasing numbers of hot days and warmer nights. Climate change also worsens human and social conditions such as poverty, poor health and lack of nutrition. We need to take robust countermeasures and since SDG 7: Affordable and Clean Energy, SDG11: Sustainable Cities and Communities and SDG 13: Climate Action are closely intertwined, an integrated approach is necessary to drive forward.

The unrestrained urbanization is largely to blame for this global warming. That is why a recent ESCAP report on cities accentuated the critical theme of urban resilience to climate change and offered policy pathways leading to solutions. Most of the buildings, land, retail spaces and public areas in cities are covered by concrete in tight proximity to each other without sufficient green spaces. This phenomenon called urban heat island (UHI) effect, which causes a temperature variance of 2 to 5 degree Celsius or more compared to rural areas, is due to the materials used such as bricks, concrete and asphalt that retain the heat of the local atmosphere during daytime. The increase of the UHI effect and the negative impact on human health can be effectively addressed with the built environment and urban planning that embodies resilient and sustainable considerations.

South-East Asia is highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change due to its long coastlines, the agriculture sector, rapid urbanization and population growth, and its tropical climate. To build capacity, ESCAP had prepared a policy quick guide for the urban poor and vulnerable population to cope and boost climate resilience. Rising temperatures in the subregion poses a threat to public health especially to those who cannot afford to live in shelters to escape heat waves. In this regard, it is important to think about how to adapt the built environment in ASEAN countries to mitigate their growing energy demand, greenhouse gas emissions and the negative impacts of climate change.

Considering the increasing demands of cooling indoor facilities due to extreme heat, focusing on energy efficiency of buildings in South-East Asia is a key strategy for mitigating climate change.
More specific projections on the impact of energy efficiency investment by South-East Asian countries indicate that a considerable share of primary energy consumption could be met through relatively small investments in energy efficiency. For example, an energy efficiency investment of 4 per cent of overall energy investment in Indonesia and Thailand was projected to meet 25 per cent and 22 per cent of primary energy consumption. For South-East Asian countries, passive cooling has huge potential in terms of low-energy building strategies: buildings account for about 57 per cent of the electricity consumption in Singapore and 75 per cent of Malaysian households rely on air-conditioning. The basic concept of passive cooling is to keep the temperature inside the buildings as low as possible using non-technological applications and natural means to prevent overheating indoors as well as building facades.

We are already familiar from scientific studies that UHI can be very harmful in the long run to those who work and live inside the city for prolonged periods of time. In recent years, we have seen worsening air quality indices for South-East Asian countries, which are consequences of thriving construction, energy production and transportation expansion that lead to release of harmful particulate matters causing the atmosphere to trap heat. ESCAP member States last year took this matter seriously and a resolution to tackle air pollution was adopted.

One of the best ways to halt this vicious cycle is to relentlessly fight urban warfare with energy efficiency and renewable energy. Undoubtedly, the synergistic effect from achieving SDG 7, SDG 11 and SDG 13 can lead to a multiplier effect in countering climate change in urban areas. As such, ESCAP as the convener of region’s inter-governmental consultations facilitated the adoption of a Regional Roadmap to accelerate the implementation of the SDGs. To keep the momentum going, the seventh session of the Asia-Pacific Urban Forum held last year further echoed the urgency to take local actions to combat climate change and integrate the SDGs.

Related SDGs: Goal 7: Affordable and clean energy, Goal 11: Sustainable cities and communities, Goal 13: Climate action